Sagarmatha in Nepali
Chomolungma in Tibetan
Holy Mother Peak
Or otherwise reognized as the highest mountain in the world.
Regardless of which name it goes by, Mount Everest is reknown worldwide, and stands as the pinnacle of ultimate trekking achievements.
For us, it started as a personal challenge, to reach Everest Base Camp and witness the beauty of the Himalayas. But we soon realized that in order to see the most raw and natural splendour of the the Khumbu mountain range, we would need to strip ourselves of all our essential comforts. It would be difficult, but it would be life changing.
This is how it all began.
To start off the hike, we had to take a small 16 passenger airplane from Kathmandu to land in Lukla airport at an altitude of 2845m. The airport has been regarded as one of the most dangerous in the world due to it’s incredibly short runway of 527m (compare that to let’s say Montreal’s airport runway which is 3353m long) and the fact that the strip terminates with a literal cliff drop. To put that into perspective, if the plane is unable to slow down to a stop in under about 7 seconds, the it will plunge several hundred feet down the mountain. For that reason, the runway is actually inclined to aid in the plane’s deceleration. What better way to get the heart pumping before our hike!
After landing successfully, we took in a deep breathe of truly fresh air Himalayan air. Having just spent over 2 weeks in India, the smell of cow poop still lingered in our nostrils!
For the next 9 days, we would be trekking on average 5-7 hours per day with the ultimate aim of reaching an altitude of 5380m, where the Everest Base Camp lies. Every day, we would not only be limited by the thinning air as we gained altitude, but also the elevated risk of Altitude Sickness. To give us our best chance, we opted to take Diamox pills and drink lots of garlic soup (apparently the local remedy?)
As we started climbing our first slope, we were faced with our first surprise. At an altitude of 2800m, there is only about 15% effective oxygen in the air (compared to the usual 20.9%). Although seemingly a small difference, we definitely felt it. Walking on flat ground, we were able to easily keep up our regular comfortable pace. But the moment we hit an incline, we slowed down to a turtle’s pace. Or Nan would describe it as the pace of an old lady window shopping. One foot in front of the other is all we could focus on.
And then I heard some quick shuffling footsteps behind me so I stepped aside (also to catch my breathe!). There stood a porter, probably only 5foot3 in height, carrying on his back what must have been over 40kg of packed beverages. You know how heavy one of those 24 can packs of coke can be? Now imagine strapping 10 of them on your back and climbing uphill!! Actually correction: in fact the local porters don’t strap it to their backs but instead have a strap against their forehead and bear most of the carrying weight through their head/neck. Most of these straps are just basic ropes, nothing padded to even offer some comfort. As a Physio, I had to cringe but after asking our guide, he said they trained that way since a very young age.
And over the next 9 days, we would be constantly humbled by the view of these porters, a reminder of how truly hard working and strong spirited the Nepalese people are. Because everything we would eat on the mountain, or the beds we slept on, or the propane tanks used to cook our meals, all of it was carried up by porters this same way. Since there are no roads for cars, the only way the tea houses are built and restocked is through the carrying power of the porters and yaks. At one point, we saw a group of locals carrying an entire tree trunk up hill. We later learned that this piece of wood would be used to build a new teahouse. And it would be built this way, one piece at a time.
Getting back to our hike, we continued striving to reach our first landmark, Namche Bazaar. At an altitude of 3440m, it would be the only large town we would encounter during the entire hike. It would also be where we would take an acclimatization day (A day of rest to allow the body to adjust to the altitude).
But…I was struck down by illness before even reaching it. On just the second day of our hike, I caught a bug causing horrible diarrhea. The diarrhea itself didn’t bother me too much, it was more the fact that my body lost all its nutrients/energy and I was no longer able to eat. Hiking uphill, at high altitude, with limited oxygen, and depleted food energy was excruciatingly difficult. Having made it only half way to Namche, I had no choice but to stop and rest over night in one of the tea houses.
This would also be our first experience of how cold it gets in the mountains. You see, the tea houses are made of slim wooden planks, non-insulated, and not heated. We each curled into our sleeping bags and zipped it up fully until we were cocooned. The air in the room was close to 0 degrees. We dreaded needing to crawl out of our sleeping bags to pee. Unfortunately for me, I had to get up 4 times due to my diarrhea. And it was freezing cold…
We survived the night and fortunately for me, my diarrhea gradually got better. My appetite was still terrible, only allowing for a few bites of food per meal, but at least I had some energy.
As we continued to climb, we left behind the beautiful rivers and forests and crossed above the tree line at 4000m. With every passing day, we would have the chance to see more and more incredible views of the Himalayan mountain ranges. Although the struggle would increase in difficulty as we climbed, the captivating scenery drove us forward. By day, we would be enamoured and in glee. Warmed by the sun and entranced by the beauty of the mountains, nothing could stop us.
But as the night set in, we were stripped of our essential comforts. There would be no shower after a tiring day of hiking. The rooms lacked the warmth that we were accustomed to (In fact, the temperature inside the room is the same temperature outside). To brush our teeth, our hands would freeze in the glacial tap water. No meat protein for our meals. A lack of nutritious vegetables or fruits.
In fact, the local living conditions in the mountains is so harsh that they are unable to grow crops. Instead, it must be carried up once again by porters from the lower villages. Meat also would be transported this way but imagine how hygienic it would be by the time it is carried over 5 days in a basket to reach the village. We were confined to potatoes, eggs, carrots, and porridge for the most part. Although tasty, after a while it got repetitive.
But this allowed us to truly live and feel the local conditions in the mountain. Taking this away would remove quite an important component of being immersed in the Himalayas and truly appreciating the spirit of the Nepalese people. No matter how heavy the load they were carrying, or how cold it is washing their clothes in the river stream, all we saw were smiles and friendly laughter. Not one person did we see complaining.
So embracing the energy of the people we saw around us, we trudged forward. Reaching Dingboche at an altitude of 4410m was another landmark. At 4410m, it was usually the point where people develop increasing symptoms of Altitude sickness (the effective oxygen drops to 12% at this altitude). For that reason, there was another scheduled rest day where we go for a 3 hour climb but then descend back to Dingboche to sleep. The critical part is that we sleep at the same altitude again. At this point, both of us felt some headache that would turn to a pounding headache whenever we exerted ourselves too much. For that reason, whenever we climbed any slopes, it would be at that turtle’s pace once again.
Climbing 3 hours up a hill to reach 4800m, we got one of the most spectacular views of the trip. For Nan, it turned out to be her favourite. From up top, we had a closeup and unrestricted view of the beautiful Ama Dablam mountain as well as its neighbouring peaks. The sky was clear blue and the snow from last night sparkled in the sunlight. We sat on the rock silently, taking it all in. All around us, standing infinitely high and imposing, were these snow-capped mountains. Mountains are believed to embody spirits or Gods, and from there, we could feel it.
Returning to the lodge, we ordered our dinner and sat down with our guide to the usual game of Cards. He had taught us a few Nepali card games but after teaching him Big 2, that’s what he repeatedly wanted to play. Sipping on the hot lemon tea, away from cellphones and technology, it was nice to be back to our basics: connecting with others. It was also at this lodge that we started to see certain people having difficulty with the Altitude. Some struggled and felt ill, whereas others had to be flown out by emergency helicopters. Because the only cure for Altitude sickness is descending. The roaring of helicopter blades overhead every 10 minutes or so was a constant reminder of the potential danger of Altitude sickness (or of the rich tourists who were able to afford the 4500$USD Everest helicopter sightseeing tour!).
We met people from all over the world, from the US, to Australia, to China and Italy. People came from all over the world to achieve one common objective: reaching Everest Base Camp. And we were so close that we could almost taste it. From Lobuche, we would hike 4 hours up to Gorak Shep (the highest lodge of the hike at 5164m), and from there push 2 hours up Kala Patthar, then back to Gorak Shep to rest, and then 4 hours to Everst Base Camp. After all that, we would have a 2 hour hike back down to Lobuche for the night. It was going to be a BIG day but considering that neither Nan or I felt great at that altitude, we definitely did not want to risk sleeping higher at 5164m of Gorak Shep. So as we zipped ourselves into our cocooned sleeping bags, our hearts pumped with anticipation and sleep did not come easily.
After a night of waking up 3 times to go pee (once again, in the freezing cold), we got up at 6AM to have breakfast. This was going to be THE day. We left our sleeping bags and stuff unpacked in the room and prepared our day packs only since we were returning here at night. With walking sticks ready, we started our ascent to Gorak Shep.
From here, we saw the landscape truly change. We were surrounded 360 degrees by some of the Himalaya’s highest mountains of the likes of Mount Nuptse, Mount Lhotse, and of course, Mount Everest. Gradually as we passed over the hill, the Khumbu glaciers came into view. It’s indescribable what we felt then and there. The only way I could put it is that we finally entered the truly wild, untouched, and raw nature of the Himalayas. No longer were we protected by man-made railings or bridge crossings, or trudging on paved hiking trails, instead, here we were openly vulnerable, but a tiny piece, a visitor to mother nature. So barren, so dangerous, and so magnificent. One small avalanche and we would be wiped out. Here we balanced on the beautiful edge of the world. I assume those who ascend mountain peaks must get a similar feeling of getting to an untouched place of nature that nobody has ever been before.
And with that came the truly challenging part of the hike. We scrambled over rocks and boulders the size of tables and chairs, each step dangerously close to an accident. We continued trekking within the cold shadows but as the sun rose, the mountains lit up in a fiery orange. Rays of light reflected off the pure white snow casting this heavenly aura in the sky. As the effective oxygen levels dropped to about 11% (almost half the oxygen available at sea level), we really felt the struggle of every step. Controlling our breathing was critical, because the moment we felt a strong shortness of breathe, the pounding headache would return. Neither of us felt top shape by then, but we pushed on to reach our objective.
After reaching Gorak Shep, we bought some hot tea at the hefty price of 8$USD for a small pot. But that is the opportunistic cost. After trekking up 9 days from Lukla, we could totally understand the effort required to bring up the tea leaves. On top of that, water was not easily available. Porters would run out early in the morning to retrieve buckets of water from the glacier, a quite dangerous task. Just carrying ourselves to the lodge was challenging enough, I can’t imagine lugging multiple litres of water.
We set off to Everest Base Camp at noon with around a five-hour return hike ahead of us. After doing the steep climb to Kala Patthar, our energy reserves were no longer high but in front of us was what we’ve been struggling for for the past 9 days. THIS was our ultimate objective.
As the distant view of Everest Base Camp came into sight, we knew it was within reach. From afar, we saw the dangerous glacier patch known as the Khumbu icefall, and was reminded of the ‘Sherpa’ documentary we saw. When preparing the multiple camps along the ascent to Everest, teams of Sherpas are required to carry food/oxygen tanks/tents/equipments/etc… across a very dangerous patch of moving glacier. They must cross at night before the sun begins to melt the glacier. Within this Khumbu icefall, the sherpas are very prone to falling into deep crevices, risk being crushed by gigantic falling ice boulders, or even deadly avalanches. Despite the unrepresentative pay they receive, the Sherpas cross this ice field 20-30 times in order to provide all the necessities to the summiteers. Yet in the end, it is the summiteers that get all the glory. This thought of how hard they work day in and day out, risking their lives to provide for others, gave us the determination to push on.
After over 3 hours of trekking through the cold, at 3PM, April 3rd, 2018, we finally reached Everest Base Camp. Having pushed through physical, mental, and emotional challenges over the past 9 days to finally reach this goal, I was overcome with emotion. We saw the familiar faces of other Trekkers that we encountered along the way up and we gave each other smiles of gleeful acknowledgement. But after 10 minutes there, the clouds set in and snow began to fall. We were freezing and the journey was not over because we still had to make it back. And that was when Nan’s headache got way worse.
We had to retrace our steps on the same challenging route over boulders and ice covered rocks to get back to Gorak Shep. With every step, her head was pounding more and she had to rest every 2-3 minutes to control it. The snowfall intensified and the sun was covered by overcast, removing our only source of warmth. With more than 2 hours of hiking ahead of us, we knew we were in trouble. I went in front of Nan and grabbed onto her two walking sticks to help her move forward. Despite the surging headache and gusts of wind, she got up and pushed on. With the increased exertion, my head began pounding as well but at this point, we had no choice but to persevere. In this rocky patch, rescue would be very difficult. Reaching deep within to find what energy we had left, we fell into a trance of placing one footstep in front of the other.
At 5PM as the sky grew dark, we finally reached Gorak Shep and plopped onto their bench. Gazing outside at the intensifying snow storm, we knew there was no way we would make it back to Lobuche. At the same time, another two people entered the lodge. 1 was visibly weak and needed to be assisted by 2 other guides to sit close to the fire. Another lady who just entered broke into tears, clearly overcome by the dangerous struggle she had just overcome. For us, we had left all our sleeping bags down in Lobuche, so this was going to be a cold night. We crawled under the 3 blankets and curled as close as possible to each other in the attempt to retain as much body heat. We collapsed quickly into a deep sleep.
I was then awoken abruptly at 4AM by a thundering headache. The first thing I felt was my body telling me this isn’t normal and to get out quickly! I woke Nan up and we immediately went to search for our guide. I was already feeling weak and nauseous, with a surging headache, the cardinals signs of Altitude Sickness. And I knew the only thing that would fix it is descending.
So at 5AM, we set off in the snow towards Lobuche, trying to go down as quickly as possible. As the sun rose, I was again struck by the beauty of the Himalayas, again balancing my pain with that of euphoria.
Finally, after 2 hours of hiking and a drop of about 200m, we reached Lobuche and I immediately felt a big improvement. We sat down for breakfast at the lodge and saw another hiker plopped on the bench exhausted. We asked him how he was doing and he told us that he also had a headache and had vomited and lost his appetite. He was heading up. We warned him as best as we could of the risk of Altitude sickness and gave him our experience and recommendations. Clearly many people were struggling at this altitude.
As we continued to descend, our bodies felt better and better. The 9 days of cold however were really taking a toll and our bodies still felt weakened. The last 3 days we would retrace our steps all the way back to Lukla. There, we would hope for clear enough weather for the plane to bring us back to Kathmandu. We dreamed of having Szechuan food and Steaks, which provided us much motivation to get through the final long days of hiking! That was our new objective and nothing would get in the way of it! Fortunately for us, everything went smoothly and we arrived safely back in Kathmandu.
In the end, we cannot say that we conquered Everest. We were simply guests of the mountain and were allowed a safe passage to the top. We are but a small piece in this massive puzzle that is Mother Nature. As the famous mountaineer Anatoli Boukreev once said “Mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion”. Ascending to Base Camp was not a claim to fame, but instead a pathway that brought Nan and I closer to nature, our true selves, and to each other. And it is something that we will carry on with us forever.